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How I used summaries to remember content

Tuesday 16th, August 2022

ATAR Notes

In Year 12, I used summaries a lot for my humanities/content-heavy subjects. Writing summaries of content is not a new or groundbreaking study technique - in fact, you've probably written summaries to some degree through high school for many of your subjects.

But I really went hard on the summaries, and I think doing so throughout the year paid off when it came to exam time.

First, I want to briefly explain my summary process. Then, I'll note what I see to be some of the benefits of using such a technique, at least based on my own experience.

Of course, the general disclaimer that different things will work for different people applies here. I think this technique worked for me because I stumbled upon it organically - I didn't have somebody say, "hey, this is how you have to study" - it just worked out the way it did. If you're interested in this technique, I recommend giving it a try - but if it's not working for you, that's okay, too!

How I used summaries

Through Year 12, I had a preference for taking notes by hand rather than typing them (what do you prefer?). This generally worked well for me overall, but it did have one big downfall: I had notes all over the place, and they were a bit more difficult to organise. So, at the end of each day, I started looking back at what I'd learnt through the day, and re-doing my class notes in a more thorough and organised manner.

Here is a basic process I'd follow:

1. Write everything you know about a topic

If I had learnt about management structures that day, for example, I would start by simply jotting down everything I could think of that I had learnt that day. This was useful for me, because it meant I actually thought about the class content rather than just skimming over it. It also gave me more incentive to pay attention in class, because I knew it would make writing my summaries easier later that day.

Sometimes, I'd be able to write more than other times - it depended a lot on the subject, the topic, and, of course, how much we had actually covered in class that day. If I couldn't quite remember some of the details (this was very often the case), I would consult the textbook or my class notes for guidance. In the end, I'd have a fairly comprehensive overview of content from that day.

In the end, I'd have a fairly comprehensive overview of content from that day.

Now, doing this at the end of each day might not be practical. For example, maybe you've only covered one fifth of the total content in a given area, and you want to wait until you've covered the entire topic before writing your summaries. I think that's fine, too - it really just depends what you're feeling on the day. I didn't have a rigid timetable or anything like that where I had to write summaries each day - sometimes it just wasn't practical (or desirable).

2. Get everything you know onto one page

If you've finished step one, and you have more than one page of content, you might then like to summarise what you can to try to get everything onto one single page.

Perhaps you can be a bit more concise when explaining a certain topic, or perhaps you've unnecessarily waffled about largely irrelevant details. Whatever the case might be, chances are your first go at getting everything on paper probably wasn't your best effort from a technical writing viewpoint. Taking what you had from step one and then making it tighter and more concise means you need to start thinking a bit more specifically about what to include, and how to phrase certain parts of the content.

3. Get more and more specific

Getting everything onto one page is great, but could you go even further? The answer is probably a resounding "yes!"

My Year 7 English teacher used to ask us what books were about. Then she'd say, "but what is it really about?" Then she'd say, "but what is it really about?" And it was always a really interesting exercise, because you start looking at surface level content, but then start to make more meaningful connections the more you think about what things actually mean.

It's sort of a similar process here. Once you have your one-page summary, try then to summarise all the important material into half a page. Then into one paragraph.

Once you have your one-page summary, try then to summarise all the important material into half a page.

You might not be able to speak in detail about every part of the topic, but you will be able to write a high-level summary of what you need to know. Once you're done, you'll have summaries of varying lengths and with varying detail, which can be useful later in the year. And that brings us to the next section - some of my perceived benefits!

How the summaries helped

As I mentioned earlier, I think this summary technique had a few different benefits for me long-term. Here are some of them!

1. Extra revision material

A happy result of creating summaries throughout the year is that - assuming you organise and file them effectively - you'll have a wealth of revision material at the end of the year around exam time.

There'll be no need to spend your time writing or re-writing notes, because you've progressively already done that throughout the year. Instead, you'll be able to spend your precious study time doing things like practice questions and practice exams in order to hone your exam craft.

Want to do a little bit of light revision? No problem - you can even give one of your summaries to somebody else and get them to test you on the content!

2. Improved writing skills

Just by virtue of consistently writing and summarising, you might find that your general writing skills improve over the year (which could have flow-on effects for subjects like English).

Writing concisely and clearly is a skill, and this summary technique will provide ample opportunity to practise just that.

3. A deeper engagement with the content

When you summarise, you might not be able to include every single detail of information; you need to be able to mentally prioritise certain aspects. You can't really do this without actually understanding the information at hand - after all, how could you decide that Information A is more important than Information B without really understanding what Information B is in the first place?

You can't really do this without actually understanding the information at hand...

As such, the summaries encourage you to think deeply about what the topic involves, and which aspects are the most important parts. You'll end up forming a sort of "importance hierarchy" for the content you're learning.

4. Clearer connections

Another thing I found beneficial about this process was that I started to make connections between different topics more easily. When I was writing what I knew about a topic, I started to realise I could link a lot of the different parts of the course together - and this was useful for some of the longer-form exam questions.

5. Handwriting practice

Something that I think can easily be overlooked is the importance of handwriting. In the exam, you'll most likely be writing your answers by hand. If you take your notes digitally all year, and never practise the skill of handwriting, you might find exam day quite uncomfortable!

Doing these summaries gave me another reason to practise writing quickly and writing a lot, which I think went some way to preparing me for the end-of-year exam period.

If you end up giving this technique a try, I hope it works effectively for you! Either way, jump across to the study techniques area of our discussions section. We'd love to hear some of your own techniques and what you use to study best!

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